Rahab as a Model for Ministry

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Articles on clergy burnout trend occasionally through social media, and a recent fascination has been Mark Love’s “Eleven Things You Might Not Understand About Your Minister,” a list of eleven insights that appear to reflect Love’s own experience of burnout.

I have mixed feelings about clergy burnout, not because ministry isn’t mind-body-soul exhausting, but because I’m flabbergasted when ministers are surprised by burnout (as though our vocational proximity to Holy Fire should somehow be safe!) and because laments of burnout seem to come frequently from white male ministers (thus joining the broader lament over white Christian men’s victimization in modern America, which I frankly dismiss as a myth veiling privilege).

There’s a fine line between observing the challenges of ministry in a way that is useful for ministers and the Church … and whining. Although Mark’s article resonates with many ministers, I’m not convinced that he contributes much to the overall conversation on ministry. For contrast, I recommend Angela MacDonald’s article that notes similar frustrations in ministry but also highlights tools for ministers to manage their own spiritual health rather than venting at the Church.

(In addition, I commend ministry colleague and RevGalBlogPals friend Marci Glass‘s critique of “Eleven Things,” which helpfully uplifts the importance of authenticity in ministry.)

For me, the core problem — theologically, ethically, spiritually — of Mark Love’s “Eleven Things” is its framework: it is addressed directly to congregants. This list of eleven things that “you” might not understand makes its appeal to the person in the pew just as one might appeal to a significant other: “For our relationship to work, I need you to understand X Y and Z about me.” Although ministers often feel married to the Church because our vocation is so life-consuming, nevertheless to entreat “you” as though the pastor-parish dynamic is akin to a marital partnership is inappropriate and quickly problematic.

The pastor-parish bond is not a relationship.

The pastor-parish bond is a covenant.

While it’s true that both a covenant and a relationship require understanding, conversation and negotiation, the bond between a pastor and her parishioners is significantly unlike a romantic partnership or social relationship because of (1) its power imbalance and (2) its strict boundaries.

First, the power imbalance of the minister-church bond. Power is all over the map but rarely balanced between pastor and parish. Just consider: the pastor is authorized to mediate God; the congregation is authorized to fire its minister. The irregularity and complexity of power dynamics are not inherently bad. At best, power fluctuates according to situation & discernment; counterintuitively, the goal is not equilibrium. When God crafted the bonds of covenant with humanity, saying beautifully “I will be your God and you will be my people,” that covenant didn’t make God and humans equal partners; rather it put us all on the same playing field, so to speak, with a stated commitment to a common purpose. (Most of the time. Sort of. Humanity doesn’t have a great track record of “common purpose.”)

Second, the critically important boundaries of ministry. It is the pastor’s job to know about, to walk delicately amidst, and to care deeply for the lives of parishioners. It is not the congregants’ job to know all about the lives of their minister. Not all but some ministers get this boundary wrong, and Mark Love’s article touches its toes over the edge of that boundary. He writes, “It’s not your fault [that pastors don’t share 100% of their lives], it’s not our fault, it’s just a bad system that doesn’t allow pastors to be as human as it should.” In fact, it’s a good system, and the purpose of that system of boundaries is not to limit ministers’ humanity but rather to limit our egos (our need for “I” attention, whether through drama or sympathy or praise). In addition, the system of boundaries on ministers’ lives limits the obsessive and distractible curiosity of groups such as congregations. By all means, pray to be called to a church that cares for rather than abuses its pastors, but be clear that your ministry among people who know all of your business will be ineffective.

Mindfulness of power and boundaries in the pastor-parish bond takes me to Rahab as a new model for parish ministry.

Two “get over it now” disclaimers: (1) Engaging the ministry lessons that Rahab may teach us requires a positive perspective on sex workers, both ancient and modern, female and male, cis and trans. (2) Implicit within the first disclaimer is the requirement that we be willing to discuss sex as though it is not impure or alien to the human experience. Figure it out, get over it, but check your gender & sexuality phobias at the door.

t-shirt from HIPS.org

Rahab  (find her story in Joshua 2 – 6) was a woman who successfully navigated power and boundaries in her professional interactions with others, and in doing so contributed vitally to the good of God’s work and the salvation of God’s people. Were it not for Rahab’s wisdom and savvy in how she worked, Joshua and the ancient Israelites would not have conquered Jericho.

Here’s what ministers, especially burning-out ministers, can learn from Rahab:

JOB DEFINITION. Simply stated, it is our job to give to others, without reciprocity. Consider that clients came to Rahab to receive satisfaction, which she gave; it was not their role to give her pleasure as well. Congregants seek nurture from their ministers, which we give. It is not the responsibility of congregants to reciprocate equally in nurturing their ministers … or assuring us of our relevance, or assuaging our loneliness, or feeding our spirits, or making ministry an easy vocation (to borrow from Mark Love’s list).

SELF-CARE. Rahab survived! She survived a perilous vocation and survived the invasion & destruction of her city, which means that Rahab did not neglect safety and self-care. Though she depended on clients for income, she depended upon herself to care for her sense of self, for her spirit, and for her body [careful, there’s a reproductive choice tangent in there] in order to thrive, not merely survive. Rahab’s ability to stay alive in body & spirit was fundamental to her availability and cunning to aid the Israelite spies.

Likewise pastors cannot be unempowered in caring for ourselves nor disheartened from nurturing our spirits for this work that can be so taxing. Though we struggle at times when it seems that congregants are determined to undermine our work, though we walk a fine line between serving parishioners without reservation while knowing that we depend upon those same parishioners for our income, nevertheless we cannot wait for congregants to “understand” us before we begin to care for ourselves. Our ability to stay alive — physically, emotionally, spiritually — is necessary to our availability for ministry.

INTIMACY. Rahab understood the imbalanced expectations for intimacy in her work; men came seeking intimate fulfillment from her … not with her. That is, intimacy was an experience she provided to customers but that encounter did not equate to a relational building block. Allowing men to experience her body, even in such heated nearness, did not mean that those men were allowed to experience the rest of her life, her thoughts, her family, her feelings, her self.

Likewise ministers are expected to welcome the intimacy sought by parishioners, to spread our arms & spirits wide as we hear their secrets and wrestlings with faith, witness their tears in life and in death, speak the depth of Love to their fears. We spread our spirits wide and allow congregants to experience God intimately through us … but we misjudge the pastor-parish relationship if we equate others’ searches for intimacy with God to a relational intimacy with us. When friendships do form with parishioners, the priestly & pastoral roles of mediating God’s intimacy prevent those friendships from being wholly equitable and unreserved.

AGENCY. While pastors may bristle & chafe at professional boundaries, or hope to duck the realities of politics, or resent the intimate work that exhausts our spirits, Rahab teaches us that proper boundaries and the skilled navigation of power are not only necessary; they are important to the process of birthing Christ. (See Rahab’s place in Jesus’ lineage, Matthew 1:5.) In spite of her professional circumstances — no, because of her professional circumstances and her handling of them, Rahab participates in bearing Jesus.

Ministry is hard, yes. Exhausting, yes. Heart-breaking, yes. But lessening our boundaries or ignoring the relational power imbalances — say, by asking parishioners like lovers to understand us better, love us a little more, and thereby ease our lives — are  poor and unethical choices for the ministry of bearing Christ in the world. We must, like Rahab, be wise and savvy in understanding the work that we are about, with all its nuances and challenges and unique opportunities.

An additional assortment of thoughts & clarifications on referencing Rahab as a model for ministry:

1. Ministers are not for sale, nor are sex workers. Just so we’re all clear.

1a. Pastoral care is not akin to turning a trick. As people respond to and engage this post, I’m learning that further clarifications such as this are needed. (8/15 addition)

2. Pastors and prostitutes are not puppets in the institutions that have evolved around spirituality and sexuality. While both can be victimized by abusive churches or clients, both have important and powerful agency to employ amidst (and sometimes against) the systems in which we work. Rahab changed the course of her city, her family, her adopted nation, and the lineage of Jesus.

2a. The power dynamics of our congregations don’t compare to the abuses & injustices of the sex industry. The ability of a pastor to leave a dysfunctional congregation is an enormous privilege; more often than not, modern day sex workers do not have such privilege due to violence, captivity, lack of resources, and more. Strong objection has been raised to the degree of agency that I suggest above in #2 for the modern sex worker (or for an individual forced into sexual slavery), and fairly so. Yet in these conversations about agency, I confess I find myself wary of voices that, in their expressed concern for justice, seem to require a total lack of agency on the part of those oppressed. (8/15 addition) 

3. There are significant and real risks to ministry and to prostitution. Million-dollar-earning mega-church pastor-authors, like struggling-call-girl-turned-rich-man’s-girlfriend “Pretty Woman” portrayals, are illusions that do not lend themselves to greater understandings of ministry or prostitution.

4. “Eleven Things You Might Not Understand About Your Minister” identifies mistrust as the cause of pastoral loneliness. In fact, the boundaries between pastor and parish, between sex worker and client, are marked by a very distinct kind of trust: not the affectionate trust of a romantic or social relationship, but the cooperative trust of two parties who have agreed to participate together. (8/15 addition) Here again, the concerns of agency and power are rightly raised. While the aim of my post is to suggest lessons that we can learn from Rahab about our pastor-parish relationships, my sweeping inclusion of modern sex workers in these final clarifications has proven distracting to that aim. To restate: pastoral care is a work of intimacy, but it is not governed exclusively or even foremost by the norms & niceties of our romantic and social relationships. How then do we who are ministers negotiate that pastoral intimacy?

Burning out is painful, and it is unfortunately true that congregations can contribute to clergy burnout. Even so, I believe that Mark Love seriously mistakes the nature of the pastor-parish relationship in his appeal to parishioners to understand their ministers.

23 thoughts on “Rahab as a Model for Ministry

  1. could it be other than privilege–as to white males and burnout–as in a greater majority of people in the pew being female and a majority of clergy–to my saddness–are male?

  2. Came across your blog late, so pardon the brevity and possible me missing a point, it’s late.

    First I appreciate some of your points. Certainly Mark’s posting was one sided, more of humanity crying for help. I suspect that more such pleas/complaints are written by men because there are more men in clergy positions and women process this differently. It is my experience women clergy support each other much better than male clergy. Although when a woman clergy “betrays” the confidence and trust of another woman it is devastating because it is less expected.

    The only question I have regarding your observations lies in the arena of power. In my experience, small rural churches, the pastor has none. Okay scratch that, the pastor has very little, and almost none when addressing long running issues within the church.

    • Thank you, NTP, you raise interesting observations. In response to your latter observation, I’ve experienced church large & small, rural & urban, with long-standing traditions and ways-of-being that feel impossible for the minister to shift . . . . and still I would say that pastors are not without power in those situations, not because we can shift church culture with a snap of the fingers, but because we are called to represent & point to Christ even within the most stubborn congregations.

  3. Thank you so much for that, Rachel. Much of Mark’s article resonated with me but I love the way you have used Rahab’s example to remind me of why the boundaries are there and how they benefit all of us. I think sometimes in the frustrations of ministry we need someone to give us back our perspective. Thank you for doing that for me today.

  4. I am reminded of a Booth comic from the New Yorker (35-40 years ago) which depicted a pastor being run out of his church by enraged, hymnal throwing congregants, including the little old lady with the umbrella. His sermon title on the board out front was : Are We all Prostitutes?

  5. More seriously, as flawed creatures, of whatever gender or race, we will all fall short of our expectations to be in control of our selves. Burnout is, of course, in large part, a problem of our own making. But that does not mean that we can affect our own healing. Reflecting on my 40 plus years in churches, I have learned three things. That God’s grace is greater than my meager attempts to fix myself. That a rigorous, vital spiritual life is crucial for self awareness and humility. And that sometimes, we are called, even privileged, to share in the sufferings of Christ by going beyond safety and exposing our selves to the pain of others. Bearing the cross, that is, suffering redemptively for others can be necessary. Preserving one’s professional distance (Rahab) may not be humanly possible when working with the poor, the abused, or the devastated. Tears need to be shed, outrage expressed, despair shared.

    • Absolutely, SAG! Pastoral ministry – putting ourselves in the position of receiving others’ intimacy – is not cold or calculated. When we witness pain and death, ecstatic life and fathomless devastation, we are absolutely impacted: moved to tears, provoked to outrage, sometimes overwhelmed by despair.

      I don’t think professional boundaries prevent the very real impact that parishioners’ lives have upon pastors’ lives (and vice versa). We can be professional and human … but we need to take care not to bleed all over our congregants just to prove our humanity, and Mark Love’s article (in my opinion) bleeds on the people in the pews just to prove that ministers are human.

      Also: oh my gosh, yes! Thank goodness God’s grace is greater!

  6. One thing I really appreciate about this piece, Rachel, is that I share your flabbergastedness that ministers are surprised by burnout. When we go-go-go all the time and are often “spiritually starving” ourselves (to quote the original article), this should surprise no one who does this work.

    I could go on, but …. As always, well-done.

  7. “In fact, the boundaries between pastor and parish, between sex worker and client, are marked by a very distinct kind of trust: not the affectionate trust of a romantic or social relationship, but the cooperative trust of two parties who have agreed to participate together.

    Burning out is painful, and it is unfortunately true that congregations can contribute to clergy burnout. Even so, I believe that Mark Love seriously mistakes the nature of the pastor-parish relationship in his appeal to parishioners to understand their ministers.”

    The central crux of this argument seems to be that we should trade a passionate, life-giving intimate relationship with another person for one that allows enough distance that I don’t have to see my pastor as a person. In defense of Mark, I think that perhaps the mistake in the nature of the pastor-parish relationship is not with him, but is writ large in the CEO/business model of American churches. The reasons for burnout are that congregants see their pastors as both subhuman and superhuman, but never just human. The Christian expectation that my pastor be a suffering servant is in contrast to the American expectation that they should be Superman. It’s also hard to truly value their Christian service when the American in me keeps saying that “I pay their salary”. You’re right that the most reasonable (but by no means best) response to this broken model is to “just take it”- telling ministers to meet their fate stoically is very similar to insisting that sex workers “feel nothing” when performing tricks. Both are distortions of something that was meant to be more and better. The best solution is not to make the best of a bad situation, but to completely change it.

    • Matt, I disagree with your synopsis of the core of my argument. The crux is not an admonition to trade passionate engagement for calculated distance; the heart of my argument is that the pastor-parish bond is a wholly different type of relationship than our other social relationships. One doesn’t need to be stoic and disengaged in order to be boundaried.

      And while congregations have their share of dysfunction and problematic expectations, for pastors to blame our struggles almost entirely on congregations is irresponsible of us and even hints that we are unwilling to do our own personal work.

      That said, you’re absolutely right that congregations have work to do too! I really like your observation of the dichotomic expectation of Suffering Servant/Superman that *does* point to some of the challenges that ministers face. I’m sure that I’ll return to these images!

      • As a counterpoint to your Rahab, I’ll offer up Thomas. As congregants, I think some of us need to see the scars and touch the wounds in those who serve over us to really see and believe the new life that lives in them. The modern expectation of professional distance (Not exactly what I mean – see below) can get in the way of that since both ministers and congregations begin to expect that ministers should hide all negative aspects about themselves.
        “Just consider: the pastor is authorized to mediate God; the congregation is authorized to fire its minister.” I think this is where you lose me. I don’t really see the pastor-parish relationship at its best under these terms. While I see that this is the reality of the situation in most churches, I don’t believe that this reflects what the nature of ministry truly is supposed to be. It leads to a situation where ministers are constantly playing to the crowd rather than serving the kingdom of Heaven. When the congregation can fire their minister, the calculated distance becomes necessary on the part of the minister. That distance goes beyond a “professional” distance in my opinion. I expect a minister to listen to me in confidence like a psychiatrist would. But unlike a psychiatrist, I expect a minister to empathize with me on a level that says “I struggle with being human too – here, put your finger in this wound.” The current situation in most churches never allows this interaction to happen, and has negative consequences for both sides. While I appreciate much of what you have to say about the personal responsibility/care that ministers must tend to (and in many cases neglect), I think that the scale and intensity of minister burnout may indicate that these things alone may not be able to resolve the situation. Rather, it may be time to address a dysfunction in this relationship.

        • Indeed, Matt, the function & dysfunction of the pastor-parish relationship does need attention, on both the interpersonal and institutional levels.

          The pastor’s authorization to mediate God and the congregation’s authorization to fire its minister are offered as extreme examples of the power dynamics impacting the pastor-parish bond, certainly not as an ideal example of how power can operate with a healthy fluidity in that bond.

          Working backwards to the beginning of your comment: I like the possibilities of Thomas! I appreciate the importance of humanity in his interaction with the resurrected Jesus: incarnational ministry (not just by the pastor, but embodied in the congregation) is so important. As it relates to professional boundaries, though: the wounds are very close to a very fine line for me. Scars we might share with discretion, but wounds have a tendency to bleed all over others. Sometimes our wounds & scars become the point or the object for fascination, depending on how we handle them. Is sharing our personal wounds the only way to share our humanity?

  8. From my perspective, I think it is a mistake to cover over wounds – for one, some suffering is ongoing and does not heal without some kind of exposure… it cannot become a scar. Certainly, how and when this exposure should be dealt with must be thoughtful, and being wounded means that we can inflict further wounds. But it is also true that “by His wounds we are healed.” Perhaps ministers in particular have a responsibility to be thoughtful about how and why they are wounded, how that relates to the condition of a wounded world so that it becomes less personal, and how and when they expose their own woundedness for the healing of those around them. I particularly appreciate, and am deeply grateful for, Henri Nouwen’s “The Wounded Healer” for my own education about these ideas. I’m not a minister, but was a teacher for a time, which has some of the same pressures. Thank you for your thoughtful responses!

  9. Excellent reflection, Rachel. I, too, have seen the original list you reference and was bothered by it… as if the church or society owes us a comfortable, easy job. Ours is a holy and humbling calling. Sometimes it is horribly difficult. Sometimes it is sheer joy. You make some poignant observations. Thank you!

  10. Wow, Rachel. This piece is excellent. I too am often mystified by the anger and resentment that grows within pastors because of their disappointment with how their parishioners don’t ‘get it,’ regarding how they’re supposed to behave, communicate, and treat the minister. My experience as a classroom teacher, then a parent, greatly informs my perspective as a pastor, understanding that the leader in any set of circumstances has a specific role, and the responsibility for setting and maintaining the terms of what happens in the collaboration and making the environment a healthy one. I’ve struggled with how to relate that without sounding patronizing, and your essay does quite an exceptional job of articulating why and how the pastor is called to be the pastor.

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